Martin: December 2007
Martin loves Sophie. He loves her with his ankles, the backs of his eyelids, the crooks of his elbows, the tips of his big toes. He loves her so much that his knees almost buckle as he watches her march down the aisle, arm-in-arm with her father, who raises her veil and releases her reluctantly after a soft kiss on the cheek.
Martin doesn’t blame the man for hesitating before he gives away his most precious gift to someone he hardly knows. Martin understands what a leap of faith this parting is, how much her parents have sacrificed so that their one and only child can have a better life than they ever dreamed of. He walks unsteadily down the steps to take her from her father. He hopes Milo and Nell—Mr. and Mrs. Surkov—know that he will dedicate every fiber of his being to Sophie’s happiness. The abandoned father nearly bows before backing into the seat next to his wife.
The bride herself looks gauzy and white, nearly hidden inside a big dress that’s un-Sophie-like. She’s tall and athletic, not one to fuss over what to wear. He almost doesn’t recognize her. A fist of fear pummels his ribcage. Has he gone to the wrong church? First Methodist instead of First Unitarian? Is the woman reaching for his outstretched hand a stranger, unaware she’s about to marry the wrong husband? He blinks, and everything comes back into focus, the stained-glass windows, the paneled walls, the long pews, the narrow aisles, the four steps they climb to the dais, the plain oak pulpit.
And, of course, Sophie.
Martin heaves an audible sigh of relief, as they take their places in front of the young, blasé minister who offers an opening prayer and pauses. Sophie smiles at Martin, pearly teeth as straight as piano keys, and nods. The air around him feels thin. He knows he is required to speak. Sophie had breezed through the planning of the wedding, rebelling only against Milo’s suggestion that, at the dinner after the ceremony, they serve his favorite appetizer, dark rye bread smeared with butter and topped with a sardine. Fortunately, Nell intervened.
“Stop!” she said. “Sardines are for cats.”
It was the last Martin heard of that fishy delight. But about their vows, Sophie was adamant.
“They must be our own,” she had said, her tone uncharacteristically earnest.
He gladly agreed, but the task proved more daunting than he had supposed. He’s a college professor who has, for over two decades, regularly taught hundreds of students in his Principles of Psychology courses. Yet when it came to expressing his love for Sophie, he found himself strangely at a loss. His first attempts were so sticky sweet that they’d have to administer insulin shots to everyone in attendance. Ultimately, he opted for a simpler approach that was, to his ears, stilted but marginally acceptable for the occasion. He and Sophie had rehearsed their forever promises many times, lying in bed together at night after sweaty sex, pouring milk over their oatmeal in the morning, scrubbing each other’s backs in the hot shower.
But now the words they labored over have vanished. Martin Kelleher, Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University, is speechless. He barely manages to mumble Sophie’s name.
Sofija, Otherwise Known as Sophie
Label: I Am Born in Vilnius, Lithuania
Posted by Sophie Surkov
12:00 AM, March 6, 2009
To you, Martin, I am Sophie, though I don’t think you really know me. So I’m writing this blog, to introduce myself to you. That’s a strange thing to say to the man I married. But here I am, sitting alone on my bed, typing away, and hoping to make sense of me. Us. I guess I should just start at the beginning.
I was born Sofija Aleksandra Surkov on April 18, 1983. Mama was a pediatric nurse at a hospital near our apartment in the center of Vilnius, and Papa was a junior engineer at an appliance factory at the edge of town. They were married eight years before I came along. Not for lack of trying, Mama often says. She gets this faraway look in her eye, like maybe she still misses being pregnant with me. Is that possible, after all these years? She was overjoyed, but Papa was so quarrelsome and gave her no rest on the subject of what to name me.
If I’d been a boy, no problem. I would’ve been Leon, after Papa’s grandfather, who died the year before I was born. About a girl, my parents went to war.
Mama wanted to call me Tatiana, Regina, Svetlana, Sasha. Too mundane, said Papa. He blamed the Communists (remember, it was 1983, and Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union) who thought women were serfs. His ambition for me was to rise above the crowd. Whatever that meant.
Mama said Papa was to blame, because he argued about everything. Will the sun rise in the morning? How many legs are there on a dog? I’m tending to believe Mama here, Martin, though I know you think Papa’s too quiet and has good manners. He’s not, and he doesn’t, at least not with Mama and me.
I can just imagine him sulking over a boiled potato at dinner and starting again after the dishes were dried. His daughter would not, under any circumstances, have a common Soviet name. And poor Mama. I can see her wiping the counter and sweeping the floor, trying her best to ignore him, which is almost impossible to do with his loud voice and overbearing manor.
One night, about a month before I was born, they finally compromised. It was dinnertime. I’m going to guess that Mama was serving borscht. Heavenly. I was practically raised on it. I’m sure she poured the soup into two mismatched chipped bowls we inherited from her mother and carried them with us to America. You’ve seen them. They’re still in my parents’ kitchen cupboard. Mama says that Papa stopped eating and whispered, “Aleksandra.” Papa says he shouted the name, after which Mama looked pained because she didn’t like the idea at all. “Her face hides nothing,” he often tells me. “So she could never be a poker player.”
Mama says she’d had enough and told him to shut up. So you know she was pretty frustrated, since she never says things like that.
“I will not name our daughter after a Rasputin-loving German Catholic,” she said.
That was Czar Nicholas’ much-hated wife. Mama was half Jewish on her father’s side but kept quiet about it for social and economic reasons most Americans probably don’t understand. Of course, Papa wasn’t thinking about Czarina Aleksandra. He was thinking of his beloved Kerensky.
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